Kenya Country Guide

Kenya Overland Travel Parks and Reserves Destinations Activities History

At A Glance

  • Kenya sits on the equator, covering 586 600 sq km of East Africa
  • It’s bordered by the Indian Ocean, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Tanzania
  • Everything from savannah to lakes, mountains and escarpments form the landscape
  • Parks and reserves cover a staggering 35 000sqkm
  • The varied climate means: come prepared!

Kenya Overland Travel

Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, with its rolling hills, grassy plains, and colourful tribesmen, offers the classic image of Africa – the very reason why its so popular for safaris and overland adventures.

From exceptional national parks and reserves like the famed Masai Mara plains and sprawling Amboseli National Park, to the flamingo filled Lake Nakuru,  Kenya is a safari paradise. While the expat white community and third generation European settlers remain in upper class Nairobi suburbs, the local Kikuyu people and the proud Maasai and Samburu still make up the majority of Kenya’s population.

Kenya travellers on an overland safari can expect to experience bustling Nairobi , the ancient Swahili trading port of Mombasa , and wonderful diving & snorkeling spots on the south coast, but it’s the great outdoors is what really draws people to Kenya. This is a place for hiking, climbing, diving and cycling – have a look at our featured Kenya adventure activities for more ideas. Above all, it’s a place for safaris, and Kenya is full of African animals. Safari means journey in Swahili and most activities revolve around the pursuit of Africa’s Big Five. Check out our extensive list of overland tours in Kenya for some great travel ideas!

Parks and Reserves

Kenya’s parks and reserves are diverse and cover 35 000 sq km, endless wilderness areas of savannah plains, acacia woodlands, rolling hills, plunging valleys and snow-capped mountain peaks.

From the classic safari destinations of the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru and Samburu, to the unique Marine National Parks, Mount Kenya and quirky Nairobi National Park, Kenya is ideal for an overland safari adventure.

Masai Mara

Everyone knows the Masai Mara: a wildlife heaven, home to the wildebeest migration and an incredible array of prowling predators. It’s also the most popular reserve in the whole of Africa and the setting for many of our Kenya overland tours.

Located on the border of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, it allows for the free crossing of animals from one park to the other; animals simply do not take any notice of the borders drawn on paper!

At times and in certain places it can get a little overrun with tourist minibuses, but there is something so special about it that it tempts seasoned safari travellers, documentary filmmakers and researchers back time and time again.

When Karen Blixen crossed the Masai Mara in an ox-wagon, she said of the experience, “The air of the African Highlands went into my head like wine. I was all the time slightly drunk with it and the joy of these months was indescribable.”

It’s simply 1510sq km of rolling plains, rocky outcrops and deep green winding rivers full of hippos and crocs, while the savannah is choc-a-block with all of the Big 5 and of course, thousands upon thousands of plains game, wildebeest and zebra in particular.

From July to October 1 million wildebeest and 200 000 zebra cross the croc-filled Grumeti River from the Serengeti into the Masai Mara to find new pastures. Scowling and fat-bellied predators follow in their wake: lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and vultures – making this the best time to go to the Mara.

Explore this amazing park with a hot air balloon ride over the plains – a truly spectacular sight.

Amboseli

Found right on the border of neighbouring Tanzania, Amboseli National Park is a fairly small but well-established national park of around 392 sq km.

Best known for its iconic safari photographs of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro with elephants strolling in the foreground, its popular with overland adventure safaris and offers great all-year round game-viewing.

Amboseli, meaning ‘salty dust’ in the Masai language, was once covered with volcanic ash when Kili erupted some thousand years ago, but today, it’s a landscape of open plains home to over 900 elephant. Reputed to have the biggest tusks in Kenya, these elephants can be spotted a mile away.

Overlanders can enjoy great views from the windows of their overland safari vehicles; elevated views makes it ideal when spotting lion, leopard and cheetah. Amboseli is one of Kenya’s most popular parks; it has great road networks, excellent views from Observation Hill and is a ideal for any overland safari tour group trekking through East Africa.

Mount Kenya

Massive Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa after Mount Kilimanjaro, is also known as Kere Nyaga – ‘Mountain of Brightness’. When flying into Nairobi from Europe, you’ll most likely see her glittery snow-covered peaks.

Fewer people go trekking on Mount Kenya than Kilimanjaro, but those who do rate the experience far higher than climbing Africa’s highest mountain. The easiest route, and one that’s open to all trekkers is to Point Lenana at 4 985 meters, commonly dubbed the ‘Tourist Peak’.

Although the scenery on the mountain is quite beautiful, only experienced climbers can climb to the summit; it involves the use of ropes, ice-axes, crampons and other specialised climbing gear. From dry forest to bamboo belts and high altitude moss, this spectacular mountain’s vegetation finally changes into the permanent ice sheets of the glacier lakes from 4500m up.

If you’re overlanding in East Africa and want to organise a climb, make sure you chat to your overland tour operator before arriving, most overland tours don’t include Mount Kenya in their itineraries, so you might have to organise it on your own.

Lake Nakuru

Most overland tours that pass through Kenya will stop over at spectacular Lake Nakuru, one of many shallow soda lakes that litter the floor of the Great Rift Valley.

Its algae-soaked waters attract thousands of pink flamingos and pelicans, while its banks are frequented by a very healthy population of black and white rhino. Nakuru was declared a sanctuary for the protection of these endangered animals in 1987 – you’ll literally trip over rhino in Nakuru!

Other game in this 188 sq km park include several lion prides, colobus monkeys, hippo, numerous antelope, buffalo and the rare Rothschild’s giraffe. Most overland safaris are richly rewarded in Lake Nakuru – game viewing is simply very easy and rewarding.

The flamingo population can vary from several thousand to a few hundred, depending on the level of the water and their frequent migration between the other lakes in the rift valley. But their presence together with the pink-hued water, makes for a rather spectacular sight.

Just 4km from the town of Nakuru, the Lake is ideally located for overland adventure tours – game-viewing and a bustling market centre within minutes!

Lake Naivasha

Beautiful Lake Naivasha is considered one of Kenya’s most stunning Rift Valley freshwater lakes, because of its diverse surrounding vegetation. Feathery papyrus, marshy lagoons and grassy shores are the home to hippos, and an amazing birdlife that include pelicans and fish eagles.

Many Kenyan overland tours will take the time to visit nearby Elsamere, the former home of George and Joy Adamson which is now a commemorative museum about the life of the couple and their lioness Elsa, of the book ‘Born Free’.

The Lake was named Nai’posha by the Maasai, meaning rough water, but the British later misspelled it as Naivasha, and so it remained.  It’s about 13km across but the waters are shallow, making a boat trip a great way of experiencing the lake.

Make sure you take a trip to Crescent Island – a protected reserve in the centre of Lake Naivasha.

Samburu

Although not usually visited on Kenya overlanding tours, the Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba reserves are still wildlife havens for some of northern Kenya’s most elusive and rare game.

Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, long-necked gerenuk and the Beisa oryx are all only found north of the equator and only in the Samburu. Elephant, cheetah and vervet monkeys are also regularly seen, but this northern park provides a fairly challenging overland safari.

Camels are often spotted along the dry riverbeds, while the Ewaso Nyiro River, which provides most of the water to the region is the only place where lush green vegetation dares to grow.

Buffalo Springs is south of the river from the Samburu, while Shaba National Reserve, the largest and most inaccessible (for 4×4 vehicles only), has an unfortunate bloody history: it was here that Joy Adamson was murdered in 1980 while attempting to rehabilitate a leopard into the reserve.

If you’re keen on an overland trip through this area, think carefully about when to go. Daytime temperatures regularly reach 40°C between January-October, even when it rains.

Marine

Seven marine national parks are found dotted along Kenya’s coast, and are home to a long-fringing coral reef that has been protected from over-fishing by Marine Park laws. Any overland tours that trek to the Kenyan coast are sure to embark on some fun in the sun, with a beach holiday in bustling Mombasa and spectacular diving off the coast.

The reefs attract a myriad of fish, sea turtles and dolphins, as well as amazing 150 year old giant clams and the rare dugong. If you keen your eyes open, you might just spot one! Giant loggerhead and leatherback turtles are a gem in the Marine Parks crown, so if you see one, consider yourself very lucky.

Its a fabulous destination for world-class diving, with spectacular coral gardens and drop offs. Alternatively, there are glass-bottomed boats offering non-swimmers the opportunity to search for the marine life above water.

Nairobi National Park

A skyscraper and a rhino in one photo? Believe it! Nairobi National Park is THAT close to the capital city, and covers 117 sq km.

It’s also the oldest national park in Kenya, with most of its fences bordering Nairobi’s suburbs. Animals include many plains game and all the Big Five except for elephant, for which the park is too small.

Most overlanders who visit Nairobi, are likely to enjoy a day’s safari in the park or visit Daphne Shelderick’s Elephant Orphanage. It’s a great park for a quick Kenyan safari if your tour doesn’t have much time, or if you’re still clamouring after game-viewing experiences after the Masai Mara.

Destinations

Kenya’s major non-safari destinations, apart from the bustling capital of Nairobi, are situated on the palm-fringed coast. Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa are all vibrant beach towns, and should be a must add-on for any safari adventure through East Africa.

The coastal region offers amazing diving & snorkelling, and delicious fresh seafood for the overland and adventure traveller, alike, while you barter with shillings and dollars at the seaside markets. Kenya’s towns and cities are definitely worth a visit.

Mombasa

Like a colourful character in a busy pub, Mombasa, on the Kenya south coast, is full of life and vibrancy, bursting to the seams with fragrant markets, trendy young Kenyans, ancient dhows and long white beaches.

Plus, Mombasa is the ‘cool’ stop on a Kenya overland tour; many tour operators will spend a night or two in Mombasa enjoying spectacular diving, fresh seafood and the relaxed beach vibe.

Originally used as a port between Africa and the Far East, Mombasa used to trade in everything from slaves and ivory to spices and animal hides, but now a long line of beachside hotels line popular Diani Beach, as well as number of rustic backpackers on nearby Tiwi Beach.

Overland travellers to Mombasa can enjoy windsurfing, jet-skiing, dhow trips to nearby Marine National Parks just off the coast, or simply wander through the narrow alleys and admire the ancient Arab-inspired houses.

Malindi

Just to the north of Mombasa is the smaller and quieter town of Malindi, once an important Swahili settlement from the 14th century, now a sublime snorkelling and diving destination.

Overland travellers might not get a chance to visit Malindi, but if you’re spending a couple of days in Mombasa, it’s worth a day trip. Visit the ancient stone cross erected by Vasco de Gama in 1499, check out the woodcarving markets or hit the sea for a dive.

Malindi’s Portuguese heritage also means that overland adventurers can enjoy an African twist on traditional ‘Pora’ cuisine.

Lamu

Ah yes, laid-back Lamu. One of Africa’s best kept secrets, this tiny island is quite simply, stuck in a relaxed time warp.

With only one road on the island, and reportedly only one car, little has changed since the 18th century. Overlanders on a visit to Lamu will be transferred by traditional dhow from the airport island to Lamu Town, the oldest settlement in East Africa.

Lamu has a narrow waterfront, dominated by dhows, billowing sails and kikoi-clad sailors, while the tiny town has a 19th century fort and museum – both worth a visit.

Most overland travellers get a kick out of donkey transport; the most common form of getting around the island apart from the dhows. With over 4000 donkeys hanging around in doorways and alleys, Lamu certainly is another world!

Nairobi

The urban sprawl that is Kenya’s capital city covers over 120km², and is home to a national park, a number of historic museums, and a few hundred alarming matatu (minibus taxi) drivers.

Nairobi is usually the start and end point for a Kenya overland safari, with travellers flying into this bustling cosmopolitan city ready to set off into the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park.

Best things to see and do in Nairobi? The former house of Karen Blixen of ‘Out of Africa’ fame is now a museum, while the giraffes and elephant orphans of Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage are worth a visit.

Overland adventurers in Nairobi will most likely eat out at Carnivore, the legendary restaurant serving only meat. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted!

If you’ve got a few days in the city, try a day safari in the Nairobi National Park; it’s not as scenic nor as wild as Kenya’s other parks, but it’s worth it for day trip. If you’re on the hunt for curios, Nairobi has got them all: kikois, kangas and wooden giraffes.

Travellers on a Kenya overland tour would be misinformed to dismiss Nairobi as just another African city. It’s simply a must-see destination on any East Africa safari.

Activities

There’s nothing as magical as floating over endless wildebeest herds in the Masai Mara in a colourful hot air balloon. It’s a great way of seeing Kenya’s wildlife without the intrusion of vehicles.

Most overland tours in Kenya, particularly in the Mara, will offer hot-air ballooning as an optional extra, but it really is worth the extra cost.

Balloon flights start shortly after dawn, when the animals are at their most active. The balloon blow-up is part of the show, and once it rises, passengers can marvel at the spectacular views and the wildlife below.

Diving

Kenya’s Marine National Parks offer amazing diving and snorkelling opportunities, as a long fringing coral reef stretches along Kenya’s entire 900km coastline.

An overland tour in Kenya that includes Kenya’s beaches like Mombasa and Malindi, will no doubt leave some time for diving. Overlanders can expect a diverse variety of diving activities, from drift reef diving to deep dives and even night dives!

Water temperatures are between 25 and 29°C, and visibility ranges from 20 to 40 meters.  The best time of the year to dive in Kenya is from October to November before the short rains, and again from February to March when visibility is at its clearest.

Elephant Feeding

If you’re on an overland adventure in Kenya, you should definitely make time to visit the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage on the edge of the Nairobi National Park.

Home to abandoned and rescued baby elephants, giraffes and other animals, the orphanage feeds, baths and hand-rears the little elephants until they are old enough to be released into Tsavo National Park.

Overlanders visiting the Elephant Orphanage can watch feeding and bath time each morning, and even get the chance to meet and feed the youngsters themselves. A truly great African experience.

Elsamere

On the banks of Lake Naivasha is the grand former home of renowned animal activists and conservationists George and Joy Adamson, Elsamere.

Named after the famous lioness Elsa, Elsamere is now a museum and conservation centre dedicated to one of the most famous wildlife stories ever told. The story of the Adamsons and Elsa’s rehabilitation into the wild was immortalised in Joy’s 1959 book ‘Born Free’.

Many Kenya Overland tours will make a stop at Elsamere, where overlanders can get a sense of the amazing conservation heritage in Kenya, as well as enjoy a sumptuous cream tea on the lawn!

History

There are over 40 ethnic groups in Kenya, most of which arrived from other parts of Africa over the last millennia. Of the larger groups, the Turkana, Maasai and Samburu settled in Kenya towards the end of the 17th century. They joined the existing Kikuyu people who are still today the largest of Kenya’s peoples.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Kenya in 1498. They dominated the region until the sultans of Oman crossed the Indian Ocean by dhow and took over control in 1729. Arabian settlements grew quickly at Mombasa and Malindi and trade flourished – mainly in slaves and ivory. Persian, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese traders followed, and the intermingling of Arabs and others with Africans formed the Swahili (Arabic for coastal) culture and language, now the mother tongue for the whole of East Africa. Incidentally, the word for tea, chai, is the same in Swahili and Chinese.

In the 1800s, Kenya saw an influx of explorers and Christian missionaries, followed by European settlers. The Mombasa to Uganda railway line was constructed at the end of the 19th century. Nairobi grew from a trading post and railway station into a large city. By 1895, the British had established a protectorate and called it Kenya, after the 5 200m peak in the central highlands that the Kikuyu call kere nyaga – the ‘mountain of whiteness’.

Kenya’s status changed to a colony in 1920, when it was home to a large and prosperous British community. Most of the Highlands region was owned by British farmers. This was the era of the Lord Delameres, Karen Blixens, ‘Happy Valley’ set and gin and tonics.

Protests by Kenyans against the country’s fertile land being allocated to the Europeans gained momentum, particularly amongst the Kikuyu who wanted their land back. The Maasai lost more land than the Kikuyu, but Kikuyu traditional life places a high value on land ownership. The violent Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, conducted by a secret society of mostly Kikuyu, initiated a campaign of terror on highland farms between 1952 and 1956. Many Europeans were killed or fled the country, but there were also thousands of African casualties: people punished for supporting the colonial government. These protests eventually led to independence in 1963. Kenya remained part of the British Commonwealth, and much of the land reverted back to Kenyan ownership.

Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president, and served until his death in 1978. He was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi, whose government over the years, has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Despite this, Moi was re-elected five times before being beaten at the polls in 2002 by Mwai Kibaki – only the third president of the country.

Kenya was, for a time, viewed as an African success story, but the last decade has brought with it difficult economic and political challenges, along with violent protests and corruption. The influx of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia has also placed a heavy burden on the government. And the country has been an unfortunate terrorist target for issues outside Kenya. The U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998 killed hundreds of innocent Kenyans. But since the new administration began its term in 2002, things are steadily improving. On a visit to Kenya you will probably see the prolific notices asking the public to report policemen who ask for bribes!

Read more up on our featured Kenya destinations, parks and reserves or adventure activities, or simply browse our Kenya overland tours.

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